THE UNHAPPIEST RECAP
And to think that we Met fans since the day they were born had Roger Maris to thank for Bob Murphy.
26 September 1961, Yankee Stadium. Bob Murphy was behind the microphone for the Baltimore Orioles in Yankee Stadium when Jack Fisher, then a Baby Bird and soon enough to become a misfit Met, served Maris a fastball that Maris served into the right field seats for home run number 60. Eight thousand fans sat in Yankee Stadium to watch the blast, and one grandmotherly society woman, who just so happened to have been awarded a new New York franchise for the National League’s first expansion, listened on her own radio.
Whatever he said, however he said it, Murphy had seduced Joan Payson into an invitation to join fellow veteran announcer Lindsey Nelson and former Pittsburgh Pirates home run king Ralph Kiner as the broadcast trio for the maiden Mets.
Well, hi there, everybody, this is Bob Murphy welcoming you to the first regular season game in the history of the New York Mets. Brought to you by Rheingold Extra Dry. Tonight the New York Mets meet the St. Louis Cardinals, right here in St. Louis. Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and I are on hand to bring you every bit of the action. Yes, sir, the New York Mets are on the air in their first great season.
How we would learn so incandescently that greatness has its connotations of disaster as well as deliverance, the Mets marching forth to finish that season as the most singular theater of absurdism of which professional baseball has record, the flesh and blood enactment of “Who’s On First” as the Keystone Kops might have actualised it.
Casey Stengel reminded a New York generation or three about how to laugh that they might not weep, Bob Murphy taught that generation or three about grace under calamity, and there are your answers should someone inquire how it was possible to withstand season after season of surrealistic Mets anti-ballplaying.
Except that the crazy Mets got even crazier in 1969, snatching a seemingly certain National League East title from a self-immolating team of Chicago Cubs, then sweeping the Atlanta Braves to nail a National League pennant, and---after dropping the first game to sighs of resigned gratitude for having gotten that far in the first place---taking four straight from a Baltimore Orioles team that had the paper look of Panzer tanks greeting the Mets’ buggies. “Those,” Murphy told a Hall of Fame gathering (he was inducted into the broadcast wing in 1994), “were my Boys of Summer.”
Murphy was so facile at finding the flower in the fallout that he was accused easily enough of being the homer of homers, but there is something to be said for a man who could keep you in the family when the home club graduated from surreal absurdism to elemental deconstruction.
When the Mets were good, even great, there was no more genial broadcaster than this portly fellow whose comportment suggested the neighbourhood barkeep who refused to let you drown your sorrows when you could recover your pleasures. When the Mets were gruesome, there was no one to whom you would rather turn for any kind of hint that this, too, should pass. Perhaps it was this that kept his most familiar phrase from devolving into affectative falsity. Only a man who has had to find so many lotuses in so many thick, muddy pools could precede a game-following commercial spot with “Back with the happy recap right after this” and make every buttery syllable seem an extraction from the Word.
And yet when the rare ejaculation of disgust should pass his lips Murphy was just too deeply himself to make it linger as anything other than a “me too, pal” kind of perverse joy. We take you back to 25 July 1990, where something even more grating than Roseanne Barr raping the National Anthem in San Diego occurred. Ninth inning, the Mets have the Philadelphia Phillies in the hole, 10-3, the Phillies put six runs across the plate without one ball being hit any harder than a shuttlecock, and sent the tying run up to hit. And, then, came the only sharply hit ball of the inning.
Line drive---caught! The game’s over. They win. The Mets win it. A line drive to Mario Diaz. They win the damn thing by a score of 10-9.
When he first entered a major league broadcast booth, it was at Curt Gowdy’s beckon, Gowdy having done minor league games with Murphy in Oklahoma. “Let’s announce like we’re friends, just talking to each other,” Gowdy suggested. He had no idea just how right was the man to whom he offered that suggestion. Murphy announced as though everyone with an ear by the speaker was his friend.
He was a Met fan’s friend through the absurdism of Marvelous Marv and the Ol’ Perfesser, through the unreality of the 1969 miracle and the 1973 Mets whose season wasn’t over until it was over; he was your friend through the Saturday Night Massacre dispatch of Tom Seaver and the rise and fall of the 1980s self-immolating dynasty that never was; he was your friend right up to and including the first time Mike Piazza traded his tools of ignorance for a long mitt up the first base line.
Can you believe it?! A wicked line drive to first base and Piazza makes the play. The ball was just blistered by Carlos Rivera. Isn’t that the way it goes in baseball? A guy goes out there for the first time and the ball was hit right at him.
“You never heard him say, ‘Hey, I hope it’s a two-hour game today,’ or ‘I hope we get a quick one here’,” said Mike Krukow, the former San Francisco Giants pitcher who is now a broadcaster for the team. “He never complained. He couldn’t have been happier being at the ballpark. That type of attitude was totally contagious.”
And not without its prices beyond the protracted periods of putridity. “So happy to be broadcasting in the big leagues. Only problem was, the constant roar of airplanes over Shea Stadium affected his hearing. He lost a good bit of it,” said Vin Scully, the man who makes friends of Los Angeles Dodgers fans and thousands if not millions enough others. “But he didn’t care. If that was the price for doing his beloved Mets, he paid it.”
As if to remind one of the foolishness that seems to have been bred into Met administration, their original general manager, M. Donald Grant, thought so little of Murphy that he made Murphy the only member of the broadcast team to wait until after the season’s final game before giving him an “oh, all right” new single year’s contract. The Doubleday regime pulled him off television entirely and restricted him to radio in 1981. The only happier marriage was to his wife, Joye.
“I’ll say goodbye now to everybody,” said Murphy, ending his final broadcast, 25 September 2003, on a night in which the Mets honoured him at Shea, after partner Gary Cohen thanked him for being New York’s Voice of Summer. “Stay well out there, wherever you may be. I’ve enjoyed the relationship with you.”
Appropriately, he paused a moment or three before commencing his standard identification wrap up: “New York Mets baseball is a production of Sports Radio 66, WFAN, in conjunction with the New York Mets.” As he finished the first four words, up came the theme music which rang in and signed off so many Mets games over so many years, that horn-happy riffing intro into an instrumental version of the team’s old “Meet the Mets.”
Bless the Mets, they and the Milwaukee Brewers took a pause in Miller Park to pay a final silent respect to the Voice of Summer, before the Mets went out and thrashed the Brewers, 12-3. And something was missing, in the bottom of the ninth, when Mike DeJean began burping up two of the Brewers’ three runs, with a little help from his friends, like Joe McEwing’s throwing error, allowing one run in, preceding Craig Counsell doubling home Ben Grieve and Gary Bennett getting plunked, before DeJean finally regrouped enough to strike out Scott Podsednik and get Brooks Kieschnick to hit a game-ending popup to second base.
There was no happy recap.
Not even an on-the-fly choke of disgust, when the Mets threatened to let the Brewers unravel Al Leiter’s magnificent start and their own magnificent evening of running, gunning, and stunning the home team; not even a swift followup pondering of whether this just might be the impossible revival, to an impossible recovery, after that nasty weekend with the Atlanta Braves just might have ended the Mets’ feather-light postseason hopes.
And that adds a further choke of grief, to this unhappiest of all unhappy recaps, to know that the roll of those broadcasters whom you know love the game with all their heart, without having to ask, is now reduced on this island earth by one.
“It’s a constant reminder that from dust we come and to dust we shall return, not to be morbid about it,” said Scully. “I’m going to miss Bob, but hopefully we’ll do a game together in the wild blue yonder somewhere.” A consummation devoutly to be wished, because until the day that pleasure is granted us in the next world, God of our fathers our grief is too heavy in this world today.
Murphy's death left Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame outfielder/slugger, as the last living member of the original Mets broadcast team.